The Environmental Movement's Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998): A First Draft of History
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The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970–1998):
A First Draft of History

The years surrounding 1970 marked the coming of age of the modern environmental movement. As that movement enters its fourth decade, perhaps the most striking change is the virtual abandonment by national environmental groups of U.S. population stabilization as an actively pursued goal.

How did the American environmental movement change so radically? Answering that question will be a challenging assignment for historians. The authors are not historians. We have spent most of our lives as a journalist and an environmental scientist, respectively. But to the historians who eventually take up the task, we have many suggestions of where to look.

To begin to understand why that retreat has occurred and the significance of the retreat, it will be important to review the 1970-era movement and its population roots.

Population Issues and the 1970-Era Environmental Movement

Around 1970, U.S. population and environmental issues were widely and publicly linked. In environmental “teach-ins” across America, college students of the time heard repetitious proclamations on the necessity of stopping U.S. population growth in order to reach environmental goals; and the most public of reasons for engaging population issues was to save the environment. The nation’s best-known population group, Zero Population Growth (ZPG)—founded by biologists concerned about the catastrophic impacts of ever more human beings on the biosphere—was outspokenly also an environmental group. And many of the nation’s largest environmental groups had or were considering “population control” as major planks of their environmental prescriptions for America. [End Page 123]

As Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) wrote in The Quiet Crisis: “Dave Brower [executive director of the Sierra Club] expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, ‘We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.’” 1 Brower encouraged Stanford University biologist and ZPG co-founder Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb, published in 1968, which surpassed even Rachel Carson’s landmark work, Silent Spring, to become the best-selling ecology book of the 1960s. 2 Ehrlich’s polemic echoed and amplified population concerns earlier raised by two widely read books, both published in 1948: Our Plundered Planet, by Fairfield Osborn, chairman of the Conservation Foundation, and Road to Survival, by William Vogt, a former Audubon Society official who later became the national director of Planned Parenthood. 3

The seeming consensus among leaders of the nascent environmental movement was paralleled, and bolstered, by widespread agreement among influential researchers and scholars in the natural sciences throughout the 1960s and 1970s. 4 The importance attached to each country’s stopping its own population growth was not confined to the United States. In 1972, Great Britain’s leading environmental magazine, The Ecologist, published the hard-hitting Blueprint for Survival, supported by thirty-four distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors, and economists, including Sir Julian Huxley, Peter Scott, and Sir Frank Fraser-Darling. With regard to population, the Blueprint stated: “First, governments must acknowledge the problem and declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration.” 5

Organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 note that U.S. population growth was a central theme. 6 The nationwide celebration revealed a massive popular groundswell that helped spur Congress and the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to enact a host of sweeping environmental laws and create a federal bureaucracy to implement and enforce those and others that had been pushed through in the 1960s. Two months after Earth Day, the First National Congress on Optimum Population and Environment convened in Chicago. 7 Religious groups—especially the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church—urged for ethical and moral reasons that the federal government adopt policies that would lead to a stabilized U.S. population. President Nixon addressed the nation about problems it would face if U.S. population growth continued unabated. On January 1, 1970, the president signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 8 often referred...